Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Phone Calls: When Even Death is Funny

It's been a rough week, the kind where the best communication turns out to be reminding the people whom you love that you do, indeed, love them.  It makes for a shorter phone call, a blink-of-an-eye visit, and calls for just a tiny greeting card, though the cost of postage does not change.

Growing up, Sunday was the day for obligatory phone calls to family members living far, far away.  Granted, it was usually my immediate family that bore the responsibility for the distance issue.  We tended to be overseas, or living somewhere inaccessible to even those relatives who enjoyed travel.  Or I could be honest and say that no one really gave a crap, and the Sunday telephone ritual was just another thing to check off the list.

I managed three calls today.

Those Dear Readers who've been with me a while know that my use of the telephone is, itself, miraculous, as I find it the least endearing mode of communication of the many modes we have in this technological age.

For instance, Grader Boob, one of my two beloved Brother-Units, is now so weak that his voice does not carry efficiently to the telephone receiver.  He prefers "Lumpy" now to GB, but that's just trivia.  And a lie. He has no sense of humor discernible any longer, cancer's gift, pain's offering.  As for his voice, part of it is also, I am guessing, change brought about by impingement of various nerves by those nefarious Lumps about which we so want to joke.

He could out grim the Grim Reaper, and will, I hope. Grumpy Lumpy seems to be so intensely in a snit because his life has been destroyed in what must feel like an overnight happening, despite what hindsight now reveals as a vine-like underground creep over a decade, culminating in Kudzu's blazing speed once that first tendril found the sun.

His pain is unimaginable, even to me, the Queen of Pain. His perennial lack of social graces, once endearing, now has the edge of a feudal samurai sword, his made to accommodate one-handed lunges. It's just a matter, really, of a shorter grip.  Maybe a tanto grip with a freaking 4-5 foot ōdachi blade.  I carry a small antique tanto in my obi, as do all my female friends.  Bianca Castafiore, we all know, is never without her 06 F.A.S.T. from Gerber.  She swears by the G-10 handle.  In a nod toward beauty, my dagger handle is a subtle, but distinctive, teal-green silk cord and black samé -- ray skin -- topped with a black iron tsuba bearing a dragonfly motif.

None of us bother with saya, or scabbards. Marlinspike Hall's women are famous for our mastery and obsession with fabrics of incredible tensile strength, and their artistic draping, which most men assume comes from a lurid obsession with shiny, metallic, decorative threading.  Yes, we live for the glint of reinforced brocade on a clear, hot summer day.

"The effect is elegant and rich without becoming fussy. "

Lumpy's issue is the same problem that turned the ōdachi into a ceremonial thing, a spiritual weapon.  The answer, I think, to the obstacle of how to carry his very particular sword, and successfully draw it, lies in providing him with a trusty steed, though that might attract undue attention as he canters about the hallways of higher learning. Better might be an unobtrusive trusty sidekick.  Like a dedicated sister in a wheelchair. I could pass off six feet of sword as a stylized assistive mobility device, no problem.  Who better to have his blessèd back?  Plus, I can help with any grading duties, and be the one to chuck chalk at any undergraduates who dare nap during class.

And here you thought a samurai sword reference was to end in its metaphorical stage! We are a knife-wielding clan, we are.  You should see some of Fred's knives. His nonchalant explanation for seemingly artless features -- a notch here, an odd finish to the metal, a strange blunt affect -- can chill my blood. He and Abbot Truffatore do not so much resemble Boy Scouts comparing five-tooled pocketknives as handy camping tools when they extricate their shiny toys from humble scabbards and lay them on felt-covered table tops as they seem men under the ancient enchantment of war.

So, though weak in body and voice, this Brother-Unit remains obstinately militarized, and determined to try teaching this semester -- two courses in person and one as an internet prof.  I want him to succeed;  I know he won't.  And so pardon my fantasy of squiring him à la Sancho Panza, ready, in the end, to do wheelies and behead the archaic administrators who failed him, impale the students who worked him into weakness, slash the desks and podia that his university maintained instead of providing health care for those who sat and leaned there.

I hate these Sunday calls.

And then there was the dear sister, caring for a waning mother, blindly navigating the end-of-life barriers thrown in their way by that same health care system that has failed the rest of this fucked-up family.  Mom is unaware of the obstacles she dodges, her memory gone, or maybe that stealthy faculty forces her to relive each trouble more than is useful.  The Sister-Unit has become a faithful nurse, tending three bed sores, feeding a weak 81-pound matriarch.  Her partner has leukemia -- that's some punchline, eh?  He is doing well, however, though they are smartly close-mouthed about it.  He's a Prince, a Peach, a Pear, which is the highest accolade of my people.

I did not even consider asking to speak to Mom.  In my mind, likely as confused as hers, I am an abstract construct to her.  The child who caused so much trouble.  The child who said "thanks, but no thanks" some 24 years ago, and by letter, not phone.  I'd had enough, enough doublespeak, enough lies, enough suppression, oppression.  I was careful to express my real gratitude for the raising, for the good times, for the afternoon on the sailboat, for the tea and toast, for the tips on dumping drinks into potted plants at cocktail parties, and the admonitions to stand up straight and be proud of my height.

She taught the art of thank-you notes, of indexing social debts (keeping a tit-for-tat list of Christmas card recipients and a neat list of who attended what party and what outfit she had worn to each). She taught the power of obligation, the complexities of generations.  She was, too, a teacher. Of little ones, but they are the most precious of all.  I did a brief stint as a substitute in a second grade classroom and was more terrified than when I faced a room full of savvy, educated, bright-as-the-moon, inquisitive young men and women.  It was Mom's influence that tainted my university teaching with the same urge to protect and defend that comes so naturally on behalf of six-year-olds.  (Sometimes that was a problem.)

I wished the Sister-Unit good courage and good luck, as she fights for some semblance of coordinated care, hires nurses, and deals with an overfed dog now prone to urinary incontinence.  Oh, and a doctor who opines only the glaringly obvious and does not return her polite phone calls.  It's not his mother, what does he care?  Oh, I take that back.  He's perfectly competent.  There's nothing to do but muddle through.

The other mother, the biological Mother-Unit?  I don't call, or not often, and cannot face it today.  She's likely to make a perfunctory inquiry about her first set of boys, and I cannot spit out the perfunctory lies, not today.  Maybe I should call, but have ready the most non-perfunctory of retorts.  "Lumpy? After winning Wimbledon, he took a brief rest in Monte Carlo -- you know what a gamer he is -- before sporting the yellow jersey on the Tour.  Right now, he's gearing up for a stint as Compositional Inquisitor.  He gets to wear flowing robes and a pouffy hat, Ma.  Isn't that grand?"

Of the other sweet Brother-Unit, I could just wow her with the truth, but her dementia, like her normal state, won't admit too much of the stuff.  So I'd say something like: "He still proudly marches to the beat of his own drum and radiates compassion and equanimity into the wavelengths of the universe, Ma, just like I told you last time."

The third call?  To an evangelical busybody who delights in telling me what to do and then, in undermining my efforts.  This week she taught me a valuable lesson about trust, as in:  Don't do it.  So the third call was harsh but easy. Her proselytizing had brought her no Godly approbation, just the stench of manure spread on burning sulfur. That may be overstating the matter.  I'll let you know.

How am I?  How do you think?  I'm in terrible physical pain, my right hand and foot have seceded from the union, I cannot eat, barely drink, sleep in fits, spasm at the whim of invisible cattle prods, and am returned to the days of fever and sweats, lethargy. Despite that, I take my cue from my siblings, a hardy bunch, smart enough to know that the only way through is through. That there is still music, and that even death is funny.

I cannot bear much more of this, but we all know I will.  My piddling troubles are as nothing. I still recognize beauty and humor -- but they must be either exquisite or of admirable kitsch.

© 2013 L. Ryan

1 comment:

  1. I am sorry you and your brother have to suffer these pains.

    Thankgod for the uber-literal and their unintentionally gift of humor:
    My favorite---the photo illustration of "a brown L.A. haze"


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